2017-18 team-by-team NHL season outlook: Previewing the Columbus Blue Jackets
With Artemi Panarin in the mix and a Vezina winner headlining the defense, Columbus can be competitive
As October creeps closer, another NHL season creeps with it.
In the 28th of a series of team-by-team summer reviews and season previews, here's a glimpse at the ...
Columbus Blue Jackets
A year after John Tortorella couldn't lift them above .500 in his debut campaign, the Blue Jackets made like the Minnesota Wild and rattled off a historic regular season in 2016-17. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky channeled his inner 2012-13 self on the path to another Vezina Trophy, a juiced-up offense churned out efficient numbers, especially on the power play during an astounding 16-game win streak, and Cam Atkinson went off for a career-best 35 goals as Columbus (50-24-8) finished with a plus-54 goal differential, third best in the NHL. Their blue line, meanwhile, surrendered fewer goals than any team except for the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, earning a first-round playoff appearance against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The run stopped there for Columbus, which made headlines as much for its sour attitude as it did for Bobrovsky's sudden inability to thwart a deep Penguins offense, falling out of the postseason thanks to a 4-1 series decision. A 108-point year and trip to the playoffs wasn't satisfactory enough for the Blue Jackets, though, as the team worked the phones over the summer to spice up its roster in advance of the 2017-18 campaign.
A salary cap crunch resulted in both Gagner and Hartnell hitting the road -- the former thanks to a decent deal from Vancouver and the latter through a buyout and subsequent opportunity in Nashville. And parting with Saad wasn't the greatest of revelations. Until, of course, you remember that, for the second time in three years, the Blue Jackets forced the hand of the Chicago Blackhawks and forced it in their favor, swiping a big-name talent in part because Chicago may not have been able to nor wanted to give Panarin a new deal down the road. Saad was a likable guy and a big contributor to Tortorella's offense, but sending him in what essentially worked out to be a one-on-one swap for Panarin, an elite goal scorer since fully moving to the NHL, was a victory -- an immediate injection of play-making talent.
Columbus did lose a few notable depth pieces when you count Quincey and Karlsson along with Gagner and Hartnell, but the team also re-signed No. 1 center Alexander Wennberg to a reasonable six-year contract.
Panarin's addition alone made the Blue Jackets' offseason an exciting one. If there were any questions as to how Tortorella and Co. were going to bring even more life to a team that won a franchise-record 50 games, the answers came in the aggressive deal with Chicago, which by itself both alleviated concerns of departed goal-scoring depth in free agency and restocked the franchise with a new, potentially long-term leader. And while Bobrovsky might face a tall task in trying to replicate his shutdown results from a season ago, he still has a top-five defense in front of him. One look at the blue-liners should tell you that personnel hasn't changed much, and that's a very good thing considering Columbus touted Calder Trophy finalist Zach Werenski among other blue-chippers on its way to a suffocating performance last season.
If we assume Panarin will bring the kind of spark to Columbus that he offered Chicago in two NHL seasons, the Blue Jackets should already be candidates for a return to the playoffs. If we assume former third overall draft pick Pierre-Luc Dubois takes a big step forward from an uneven outing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and slots into his center duties off the bench, the Blue Jackets should threaten to do more damage than a first-round playoff appearance this time around. But can we assume either of those things? Certainly not the second. It's this writer's opinion that Panarin was a stud addition, and his presence should bump an already-dangerous offense to new heights even if it takes some time. Bobrovsky and the defense, meanwhile, are Grade-A pieces for a club that has the wherewithal to compete in a tough division. Another 108-point season just seems too lofty a goal when you're bound to get improvement from other Metropolitan foes.
Playoffs? Sure. But don't count on this team, at least just yet, going the distance. There's still an identity to be found.
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